The Most Attractive Women Have the Least Casual Sex

February 12, 2013

slutWhat I’ve always suspected now has some solid evidence behind it:

Less attractive women seek casual sex as a compromise, and more attractive women avoid it. 

The University of Notre Dame has issued a press release highlighting the research of sociologist Elizabeth McClintock (H/T: Stuart Schneiderman):

Handsome Wants as Handsome Does: Physical Attractiveness and Gender Differences in Revealed Sexual Preferences

“McClintock studies the impacts of physical attractiveness and age on mate selection and the effects of gender and income on relationships.” 

Perfect for HUS!

By way of background, McClintock buys into the sexual economics model of relationships:

Couple formation is often conceptualized as a competitive, two-sided matching process in which individuals implicitly trade their assets for those of a mate, trying to find the most desirable partner and most rewarding relationship that they can get given their own assets. This market metaphor has primarily been applied to marriage markets and focused on the exchange of income or status for other desired resources such as physical attractiveness, but it is easily extended to explain partner selection in the young adult premarital dating market as well.

…Just as good looks may be exchanged for status and financial resources, attractiveness may also be traded for control over the degree of commitment and progression of sexual activity.

This confirms what David Buss said in The Evolution of Desire nearly 20 years ago:

Women desire a lasting commitment, and the most desirable women are in the best position to get what they want.

The study also features a methodology that should please those HUS readers who put little faith in surveys and hypothetical “what if” questions:

Rather than using a direct measure of sexual and romantic goals, this paper uses reported outcomes to infer goals. The advantage to this approach is that individuals may not know what they most value in partners and relationships and/or may answer questions about preferences and priorities in accordance with gender-stereotyped sexual and romantic scripts.  Indeed, for men there is evidence that the sexual behavior they expect of themselves is not consistent with their actual experiences.

McClintock also points out that a preferred strategy isn’t very useful if you don’t have the power to bring your dreams to fruition:

Actual sexual and romantic outcomes are interesting because they reflect compromised rather than ideal choices: Individuals’ ideal preferences may be unattainable, forcing them to compromise and enter sub-optimal unions (or to remain single).

McClintock’s background summary cites many studies that show physical attractiveness to hold a relatively low place in the hierarchy of desired attributes, for both women and men. However, she questions the validity of these responses, much as HUS readers did when looking at the results of the Single in America survey

In contrast, in experimental studies designed to measure individual’s acted preferences (as opposed to stated preferences), physical attractiveness is highly valued by both genders. The consistency of findings over a wide range of studies makes the conclusions reasonably credible: Both women and men value physical attractiveness highly in actual choices but value it less when reporting their preferences.

McClintock hypothesized that the most attractive people should be able to more effectively realize their goals in mate selection. She explores and contrasts “social structural” effects, i.e. a sexual double standard constraining female sexuality, vs. evolutionary theory, i.e. genetically determined gender differences, on outcomes. 

Social Structural Perspective

  • Gendered sexual norms vary over time and place and respond to changing social conditions.
  • Women’s and men’s relative valuation of physical attractiveness and financial potential have become increasingly similar as women’s labor force participation increases, and this trend is stronger in more gender-egalitarian regions of the United States.
  • Age, education, feminist ideology, and political orientation are also important, modifying the effect of gender on the valuation of partners’ physical attractiveness and status.
  • The sexual double standard, still prevalent today, penalizes women and forgives (or rewards) men for accumulating sexual experience.
  • Women favor committed, long-term relationships.

Evolutionary Theory Perspective

  • Men may choose between short-term mating strategies, in which they mate with many women without committing resources to potential offspring, or a long-term strategy, in which they offer support in raising offspring in exchange for sexual access.
  • Women may also pursue a mixture of short- and long-term mating strategies. They use short-term mating to acquire “good genes,” generally identified by physical attractiveness and bravado. They use long-term mating strategies to acquire material support in raising offspring.
  • Women will be more selective than men in picking casual sex partners.
McClintock’s HypothesesSocial StructuralEvolutionary Theory

More physically attractive women and men will be more likely to have had a romantic relationship than less attractive women and men.


More physically attractive women and men will be more likely to have had sexual intercourse than less attractive women and men.

More physically attractive men will have more sexual partners than less attractive men.YesYes
More physically attractive men are more likely to have sexual intercourse soon after meeting a new partner, compared to less attractive men.NoYes
More physically attractive women are less likely to have sexual intercourse soon after meeting a new partner, compared to less attractive women.NoYes
More physically attractive men will be more likely to describe their relationships as casual sexual relationships and less likely to describe their relationships as exclusive relationships, compared to less attractive men.YesYes
More physically attractive women will be more likely to describe their relationships as exclusive relationships and less likely to describe their relationships as casual sexual relationships, compared to less attractive women.NoYes



n = > 14,000

Mean age = 21.5 years

To measure attractiveness, subjects were rated from 1 (very unattractive) to 5 (very attractive). In addition, BMI was accounted for, using the following metric:

<18.5:  Underweight

19-24:  Normal weight

25-30: Overweight

30+: Obese



1. For women, the number of sexual partners decreases with increasing physical attractiveness.

2. Very physically attractive women are more likely to form exclusive relationships than to form purely sexual relationships.

3. Attractive women are less likely to have sexual intercourse within the first week of meeting a partner.

4. Underweight and normal-weight women are more likely to report romantic experience.

5. Overweight women report approximately 10% more partners than normal-weight women whereas obese women report approximately 10% fewer partners.

6. For women the effect of being underweight on within-relationship outcomes resembles the effect of being very physically attractive.

(This suggests that the factors influencing romantic and sexual desirability are at least in part socially structured because underweight women are less fertile so the evolutionary perspective predicts that they would be less able to obtain desired outcomes.)

These results are consistent with the social structural model that posits that women’s romantic and sexual goals are shaped by the double standard of sexuality.


1. For men, the number of sexual partners increases with increasing physical attractiveness.

This suggests that men seek a greater number of sexual partners than women: Physically attractive men do better in the resulting competition for sexual access.

2. For men, being very physically attractive increases the chance of reporting purely sexual relationships (versus exclusive relationships).

3. Being physically attractive also increases the chance of having sexual intercourse in the first week of acquaintance.

4. Normal-weight men report the most partners.

5. Underweight men are predicted to report 17% fewer partners, and obese men are predicted to report 27% fewer partners.

These results are consistent with an evolutionary model in that partnerships characterized as “only having sex” and partnerships in which sexual intercourse occurs after a brief period of acquaintance are indicative of a female short-term mating strategy.


1. Very physically attractive individuals are more advantaged than unattractive individuals are disadvantaged.

In many instances, only very physically attractive individuals differed significantly from average/attractive individuals (the reference group) whereas unattractive individuals did not differ.

2. Women and men who are more educated and/or who have higher-status parents are rated more attractive and tend to have lower BMI.


It is clear that sexual and romantic outcomes are at least partially socially structured.

First, the sexual double standard unequivocally indicates that women will favor committed sexual relationships whereas some formulations of the evolutionary perspective suggest that women may pursue both long- and short-term mating strategies.

Second, the sexual double standard predicts that women will prefer delaying sexual intercourse whereas the evolutionary model does not make a clear prediction regarding gender differences (or similarity) in the preferred timing of sexual intercourse.

Third, the evolutionary model clearly indicates that more physically attractive men will have a greater propensity to form casual sexual relationships whereas the social structural model provides less guidance in predicting men’s behavior (the sexual double standard is directed at women).

McClintock notes that the two theories may overlap:

Perhaps the sexual double standard has persisted in part because the difference in sexual behavior that it enforces is evolutionarily determined and would exist regardless. An alternative explanation is that evolutionary theories of human mating behavior have been developed post hoc to explain observed behavior: Insofar as observed behavior is consistent with the sexual double standard, evolutionary theories will tend to make similar predictions.

Stay tuned, McClintock has a new study coming out that looks at the exchange of female beauty for male status, i.e. hypergamy. I’ll keep you posted.